LONDON -- The last time Frank Lampard walked onto the Stamford Bridge pitch in away colours, he was booed. It was January 2015 and he had come on as a 77th-minute substitute for Manchester City, having left Chelsea "through the back door," as he puts it, seven months earlier and controversially joined their biggest Premier League rivals.
Walking in through the front door is an altogether different experience, and one you sense that even Lampard -- who has been back to Stamford Bridge many times since his retirement from playing -- was a little unprepared for. Chelsea supporters greeted their record goalscorer, now a mere opponent rather than an enemy, with such unadulterated adoration that this lively Carabao Cup fourth-round tie felt like a footnote to the love-in.
Ahead of kickoff, banners with the words "GOAL AFTER GOAL, GAME AFTER GAME" and "FOREVER A BLUE, FOREVER A LEGEND" flanked a giant image of Lampard in the Matthew Harding Stand, emblazoned with the number 211 -- his peerless goal tally for Chelsea. From his appearance in the visiting dugout to his lap of appreciation after the final whistle, Derby County's manager was serenaded with chants of "Super, super Frank" and "He's won it all."
It was every bit as "special" as Lampard had predicted, but also slightly surreal. Few club legends, even others every bit as significant in Chelsea's recent history, have been exposed to the sheer level of love lavished on him in the midst of a competitive setting -- a penny for the thoughts of Jose Mourinho -- and the very real sense of jeopardy brought by his vibrant and dynamic Derby side sat awkwardly with the gushing tributes.
Lampard took it all in his stride, of course, transitioning effortlessly from clapping the songs directed at him to vigorously applauding his Derby players as they hassled and harried Chelsea into defensive mistakes. He showed frustration at the goals his team conceded but, true to his word, declined to celebrate the ones they scored, settling instead for a silent, satisfied swig of water.
He carried himself like a manager, and after the match he spoke like one too. "I've got a job to do," he insisted. "I really appreciate the fans, and saying thank you at the end. That isn't normal. I did leave out of the back door here, and that was disappointing. But I walked in the front door here and got that.
"I thanked the fans for their support of 13 years, and then walked down to the Derby fans, my present. We're working hard to be successful as a club. I'm a lucky man to get it both ends."
Those around him didn't deal with it so well. Gianfranco Zola afterwards played down the notion that Chelsea's edge had been blunted by playing in a stadium chanting for the opposition manager, instead crediting Lampard's game plan of blocking passes into Cesc Fabregas and forcing those behind him into uncomfortable decisions.
"The defenders had more time, but they weren't as sharp as normal," he said. "So we didn't have control of the game. We lost some balls and they were very good at picking up on our mistakes." Willy Caballero was also a bundle of uncertainty, allowing Derby attackers to get too close and botching several clearances.
Perhaps that was everything, but it was difficult not to link Chelsea's fluctuating concentration levels with the fact that the focus of Stamford Bridge so often drifted to the visiting dugout. Derby assistant Jody Morris, winner of seven trophies in two seasons in charge of the Blues' under-18 and under-19 sides before leaving to team up with Lampard, also got his moment of appreciation at the final whistle.
The mental test would be hardest, Lampard had warned, for Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, the two Chelsea loanees unusually granted permission to play against their parent club at Stamford Bridge. It took just five minutes and a woefully misguided swing of Tomori's boot to hammer the message home, as well as set the tone for a wild and at times comically frantic contest.
"His character was immense," Lampard said of Tomori. Mount endured no such humiliation, instead building on a slightly over-eager start to provide an impressive assist and help power Derby's late surge.
"This wasn't a game for Mason to run because he's against Chelsea, against [N'Golo] Kante, [Mateo] Kovavic and Fabregas," Lampard added. "But he was asked to produce moments, and he did. It was his pass for the second goal. They both passed with flying colours. This could be the first game of many [for them] at Chelsea. I hope it is." In the end Mount and Tomori did more than many in a blue shirt to impress Maurizio Sarri, but they were not the story of the night.
That status belonged to the returning legend, honoured for his past by Stamford Bridge and for his present by the young team whose performance did him such credit. When it was all over, the abiding sense was of a man who will find himself walking through this particular front door again before too long, to take his place in one dugout or another.